California is experiencing its worst wildfire season ever, and inmates are helping fight the flames.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) tweeted that more than 2,000 volunteer inmates were serving as firefighters in the state. That included 58 individuals under 18 years of age.
“Inmate firefighters serve a vital role, clearing thick brush down to bare soil to stop the fire’s spread,” the tweet read.
While the tweet was meant to praise the important role inmates play during wildfire season, it instead prompted discussion online over the controversial practice, which has taken place in California since World War II.
The source of the controversy is the difference in pay.
As the San Diego Union Tribune reports, Cal Fire Firefighters make at least US$10.50 per hour.
Inmates make $2 each day, plus $1 per hour.
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In an interview with CNN last year, CDCR spokesman Bill Sessa described the inmates’ salaries as “lavish pay by prison standards.”
In a statement to KQED News last year, CDCR spokesman Bill Sessa explained sending out inmates saves California up to US$100 million a year in firefighting costs.
While the firefighters are technically volunteers, they are specially selected and trained.
“We also look for certain attributes that we know are critical for them to be able to work on a fire crew: whether they are willing to join in and work as a team, obey rules, be disciplined and be responsible,” he said.
Sessa added some inmates worked 72 hours straight last year, while fighting some of the toughest fires in California.
The spokesman noted that while they are paid less, many inmates are thankful for the opportunity.
“The value of this program is it teaches people life skills that most of us take for granted but many of them came to prison without,” he told CNN. “They learn discipline and to show up on time, and some leadership.”
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But not everyone agrees that it is a good enough opportunity for the inmates.
A Washington Examiner article explains that “despite their heroics” and job experience, these inmates will never be able to become actual firefighters once leaving prison.
That’s because California law occupational licensing laws prevent felons from earning EMT certifications.
“This isn’t just an injustice — it’s a waste of acquired skills and state resources. Inmates have to volunteer for the job in the first place, then go through significant training while incarcerated,” the article reads.
But the practice of enlisting inmates to help put out fires isn’t just unique to California. Inmates in British Columbia were thanked by the province last year, after they helped the province amid its worst-ever wildfire season.
An October 2013 news release from the province explained that inmates received between $2 and $8 per day, and many spend the money on things such as buying snacks or making phone calls.
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Deadly wildfire season for firefighters
Six firefighters have died while battling California’s wildfires this year, which have been some of the most destructive in more than a decade as they have forced tens of thousands to evacuate.
About 110 major wildfires are burning across western U.S., and have burned more than 23,000 square kilometres, an area larger than the state of New Jersey, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The conflagrations have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes and shuttered national parks.
— With files from Reuters